Drinking Made “Big” Easy

IMG_1273New Orleans has earned its reputation as one of America’s great party cities. We saw that first-hand when we visited the Crescent City in October. The place truly never sleeps. From The French Quarter, to downtown to the stately Uptown, Carrollton and University districts to all along the Mississippi River, which winds through the city, New Orleans has no shortage of watering holes that are open 24/7.

While The Big Easy in unquestionably a great drinking city, I don’t necessarily think that it’s a city of great drinks. Sure, many great classic cocktails were invented in New Orleans, but everywhere we went the focus was on quick and convenient sweet high-alcohol drinks meant to get your blood-alcohol level rising in a hurry.

EvenIMG_1269 at Pat O’Brien’s, one of the city’s most famous drinking establishments on Bourbon Street, I saw an obvious lack of sophistication. Of course, that’s not why people go there. They go for the Hurricanes, which were invented there. Unfortunately, they’re pre-made and poured in large volume. You can even get them in to-go cups to take with you as you visit other stops along the city’s most famous street.

I have to say that the Sazerac at Pat O’Brien’s was excellent. Perhaps the most acclaimed cocktail originating in New Orleans, the Sazerac is a Bourbon-based drink mixed with simple syrup, Peyshaud’s Bitters and Angustora Bitters and served in a glass rinsed with Pernod and garnished with a lemon twist. It’s not a true Sazerac if it doesn’t include Peyshaud’s Bitters. By far the best cocktail I had during my stay. Nevertheless, I was astounded that the bartender didn’t know how to make a Whiskey Sour using fresh ingredients, and instead used a pre-made sour mix. He was unfamiliar with some basic mixing skills you’d expect at such a renowned establishment.

The knowledge meter didn’t change much a few blocks away at another well-known bar, Lafittte’s Blacksmith Shop, where we grabbed a Voodoo, another high-octane frozen drink resembling a grape slushy, and a Cherry Bomb, a cup of maraschino cherries soaked in Everclear. Simple, sweet and effective. No wonder Bourbon Street has earned its reputation.

The pre-made frozen cocktails are pretty much symbolic of what I found around New Orleans. I’ve never seen a place where “Drive-through Daiquiris” are the norm. High-alcohol fruit-flavored slushy drinks served in to-go cups come with names like 190 Octane, Banana Banshee, Cat 5 Hurricane, Eye Candy, Mardi Gras Mash, Swamp Sludge and Jungle Juice and are available on many street corners.10590523_10152576885018813_6114559751078655724_n

Naturally, I also had to check out the local craft beer scene, but was a bit disappointed. In fact, I found that throughout our travels the craft beer selections were pretty limited. NOLA Brewing Co. had some nice offerings among their regular rotation, including their award-winning Hopitoulas IPA and the Irish Channel Stout, and some interesting specialty beers among their rotations, including brews featuring pineapple and ghost pepper, blackberry and sage. I’m sure their novelty beers are helping to drive a few more beer drinkers to NOLA Brewing.

We didn’t have the chance to visit Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter or any of the other craft breweries just outside of New Orleans, but it was obvious that the industry is not very advanced in the region and through most of the areas that we traveled along the way. None of those, including the widely known Abita Brewery, were “can’t miss” destinations, so we missed them.

Of course, with so many other imbibing options in town, it figures that craft beer would fall behind the “bang-them-out” cocktails found pretty much at every corner. Clearly, people don’t go to New Orleans for craft beers. And I didn’t see evidence that they go for finely crafted cocktails, either.

They go to drink high-alcohol drinks that taste good and are easy – big easy.10425845_10152580540923813_3595453593683359230_n

Going “Berserk” at Upland’s Rök House


Lars Bennett brings the Viking spirit to The Rök House

The image of the Vikings stood for centuries as seafaring warriors who spread terror along the coasts of Europe. Their reputation as pirates wearing horned helmets overshadows their skills as storytellers, craftsmen, traders and beer brewers.

History recalls that the Vikings had a great love for drinking and crafting fine ales, according to the owners of Upland’s newest craft brewery, The Rök House, which opened this past June.

Weaving the Viking theme throughout their brewery and beers, owners Mark and Sue Heffernan, Lars Bennett and Brandy Friday are determined to recreate their ancestors’ brewing standards with a variety of unique brews.


Mark Heffernan adds the hops to a new batch of Berserker Brown Ale

The brewery’s Rök House name comes from the stone structures where the Vikings brewed their beer.

“Rök is Old Norse for a type of stone that was used in Scandinavian culture to build brew houses,” said Bennett. “One of their only stone structures was a brew house to help keep the temperature in and make a more consistent brew. This is our Rök House.”

Bennett, who was born and raised in Upland, says the roots trace back to when he attended the annual Stone Brewing Co. Anniversary Beer Festival in San Marcos several years ago. He noticed attendees with Stone gargoyle tattoos and admired the marketing approach. Then the idea struck.

“I thought, I’m half Viking, so I should open up a Viking brewery,” he said, just joking at the time. That escalated his interest in home brewing under the tutelage of Mark Heffernan, who had been home brewing since 1985 and selling home brewing supplies at Pacific Wine Merchants in Upland since 1996.

Although brewing separately, Heffernan and Bennett realized they were both creating some very good beers. “So we decided to combine forces and see what would happen,” Bennett said. “We got that much better and we joked about opening up a brewery. Now here we are.”

“We each had some recipes that we had perfected and that’s what we started with,” said Heffernan. “We really wanted to bring back the original styles of beers. A lot of people have lost sight of where the beers come from, and so we stick with the American and European styles – Kolsh, Wit, a good Brown and definitely an IPA. It’s not a traditional West Coast style and it’s not an East Coast style. We call it the Rök House style. People who don’t like IPAs like it and people who like IPAs like it.”

“It is fun to experiment,” Heffernan said. “You can’t do that if you’re a winery. But beer is a canvas for anything. One of my customers makes a sauerkraut beer. Whatever fruit is out there, or nut, berry or twig – just throw it in a beer.”

IMG_1071Bennett said Rök House plans to brew a “traditional Viking ale” and stage special events around traditional Viking holidays in the near future.

“The Vikings didn’t know anything about hops, but they had laurel. We found a source for laurel tips, which is how they bitter up their beers.”

As for their future goals, Heffernan says they are already on target.

“We’ve already passed one, at least for me, and that was to quit my day job, which I had been doing for 18 years. We’re doing well enough that both of us get paid. We just want to continue to expand. We have started distribution and our beer is at The Junction (in Claremont) and doing very well. I hope we’ll soon be bottling … And then it’s the world.”

Said like your typical Viking.


This article also appears in the November edition of 9-0-9 Magazine.

Beer — It’s Part of the Community

IMG_1245Yoga classes, art demonstrations, lectures, concerts and fund raising events for local non-profit organizations.

Those might not be the things that come to mind when you think of craft breweries. But with the escalating popularity of craft beer, and the growing number of breweries throughout Southern California, it only makes sense that those establishments are becoming deeply engrained into their communities.

“One of our core values is the community, and we try to do events or things that benefit the community. We love partnering with local charities and being able to promote local small businesses,” says Simon Brown, one of the partner owners of Claremont Craft Ales.

Claremont Craft Ales and Dale Bros. Brewery in Upland are both actively involved in supporting local community organizations and donating proceeds from special events to back a worthy cause. For example, take a look at the Dale Bros. calendar of upcoming events and you’ll see they are sponsoring events to benefit support House of Ruth, Tour de Foothills and Loma Linda Ronald McDonald House, among others.

Dale Bros. will host an OktoberFiesta on Oct. 11, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Upland Community Partnership’s neighborhood-based after-school programs.

Money raised at Claremont Craft Ales’ 2nd anniversary festivities during the summer was donated to House of Ruth in Claremont.

Brown says the events “aren’t necessarily moneymakers and they don’t necessarily drive people to our brewery, but part of our business model is in giving back.”

And, as most business owners know, philanthropic generosity is also good for business.

“It’s amazing how many people in Upland hadn’t heard of us,” says Curt Dale of Dale Bros Brewery. Adds his brother Andy, “There probably are still a lot who haven’t heard of us, but now it feels as if within our home territory that our brand recognition has grown considerably.”

Along with a good product and a popular location, Dale Bros. Brewery has gained a strong presence because of its community outreach. Dale Bros. hosted more than two-dozen breweries from around Southern California and thousands of guests at its 11th anniversary celebration last January at Cable Airport’s expansive outdoor area. Proceeds from event benefited the Claremont Education Foundation.

The concept of giving back doesn’t end with sponsoring fundraisers. Dale Bros. frequently brings in local bands to entertain, while Claremont Craft Ales will offer free art classes, yoga classes and lectures for professors from the nearby Claremont Colleges. Both, along with many other area breweries, will schedule local caterers and food trucks to set up business at their locations.

“We try to do as much as we can, and we love partnering with local charities and small businesses to promote what they do,” says Brown.

Brown says that part of CCA’s community partnership is in fitting into “that Claremont vibe.” Because of his wife and business partner Emily’s ties to Claremont, Brown says they always intended to locate the brewery in her home town.IMG_1247

“We knew that the vibe in Claremont would work well with a brewery,” Brown says. “Claremont is a very local-centric, artisan community. We knew that having a locally made, hand-crafted product in the city of Claremont would have a built-in customer base from the very beginning, especially if we named the brewery after the city. We wanted to represent Claremont and its values. It was very intentional.”

The decision to locate in Upland didn’t come as quickly to Curt Dale, who established Dale Bros. Brewery as the region’s first craft brewery in 2001. He grew up in Claremont, but he moved with his family to Louisville and later Vermont. Curt returned to Claremont in 1976 to attend college, and the family returned in 1980. While they lived locally, Curt says he still considered opening the beer business in the New England area before eventually setting up shop in an industrial park on Ninth Street in Upland.”

Good thing he did, because the area now also features Sanctum Brewing Co. in Pomona, La Verne Brewing Co., Hamilton Family Brewery in Rancho Cucamonga and Rök House Brewing Company in Upland, where residents are finding that hometown breweries are indeed important members of their community.


An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the October edition of 9-0-9 Magazine